December 14, 2017

Classic iMonk: On Faith’s Crumbling Edge: Restoring The Uprooted Assurance Of The Ordinary Christian

Chaplain Mike reposts this classic iMonk article from June, 2005

UPDATE: I fixed the broken links at the end of post.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of the Christian’s assurance of salvation.

To put my cards on the table, I don’t struggle with assurance of salvation personally at all. I’m far more inclined toward the “wider mercy” view of God’s love than I am toward any apprehensions about whether I am among the elect. My struggles are over entirely different subjects: Does God exist? How can I face death without losing my sanity? Check in with me on those topics and I’ll buy your joe.

I’m interested because I spend a significant amount of time counseling students and adults on the subject of assurance.

These are people who are unsure whether or not they are Christians at all. Some feel they never were, but most feel they’ve somehow started, and now failed, in their Christian faith. I rarely have anyone come to me doubting that God exists or questioning whether the Bible is true- both questions I would expect to hear frequently given the student population that I minister to at a boarding school. Instead of these fundamental questions, I continually have a conversation something like this:

“I used to think I was a was Christian, but I don’t think I am any more.”

“What has convinced you that you’re not a Christian?”

“I don’t live like a Christian. I do a lot of things that I know Christians don’t do. I rededicate my life to Christ all the time, but I just go right back to the same old things, and I don’t see how a Christian would be so hypocritical. I’m lazy, and I really don’t live the Christian life.”

[Insert at this point my standard outline on the subject: Christians are sinners. That’s who Christ died to save. That’s what the Holy Spirit convicts us about. We’re sinners throughout life, and because the Spirit is in us, we are unhappy about our sin. Instead of doubting out salvation, which is what the Devil wants us to do, we need to continue to believe the promise of God that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness for Jesus sake. We trust Christ for forgiveness of what we do wrong, but also for the gift of His righteousness so we know we are accepted by God for Christ’s sake, and not because we lived up to our intentions or promises to Him. Remember that only Christians struggle with the issue of assurance, and that is because the Holy Spirit in us constantly brings us into to the light of the Father’s love and the grace of Jesus Christ. Accept what Christ has done for you and apart from you. Meditate on the promises in the Gospel: they are yours and are always all true for you. Read about Jesus’ tender love for sinful people. Rest in the finished work and gracious righteousness of Christ. If you go through a time of being unsure, expect your assurance to return as you focus on Christ, and not on yourself.]

“Yeah. I know all that….I just don’t think I’m a real Christian. I need to get baptized again or something.”

That’s the usual student version. I’ll pass on replaying the transcript of the adult, recently and inadequately exposed to Calvinism version, which includes things like, “What if I’m not elect?” and “If I am predestined to go to hell, it doesn’t matter if I think I’m a Christian- I’m just fooling myself because I’m a reprobate.” Answering these concerns is a different matter that has more to do with the character and decrees of God than with assurance itself, but make no mistake: there’s a lot of true agony going on with these people.

One of the first things that ever occurred to me as a young preacher boy predestined to wander from the fundamentalism of my youth was a feeling that much of what I saw going on around me was meant to plow up any kind of assurance on the part of anyone who wasn’t a Texas youth evangelist. Yeah, we learned all the “assurance verses,” but someone was busy blowing up whatever we thought we believed before we had any real chance to be “grounded.”

For instance, it was entirely common in my circles to hear preachers deliver a sermon that, despite varying texts and titles, could simply be called “Are you sure? Are you really sure? Are you sure you’re sure? Are you absolutely sure?”

Sermons on death and the impending end of the world were frequently spiced with searching questions on whether we were absolutely sure we’d be in heaven should these events occur. Or would we, as Jesus predicted, find ourselves surprised to be in hell with millions of other Christians who “weren’t really saved” after all?

Another round of sermons and testimonies were all about folks who had “thought” for years they were saved , but weren’t really saved at all. After one particular “Layman’s Revival,” everyone who ever taught me in Sunday School or witnessed to me at my church got “re-saved.” (Except for my mom and the pastor. I remember the pastor being rather unenthusiastic about rebaptizing a busful of people he’d baptized years before, including most of the deacons and many of his family.) It became a badge of honor to say that you’d spent years assuming you were a Christian, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, knocking on doors to witness- and then had discovered you weren’t saved and had never “accepted Jesus” at all.

Revivals, youth camps, youth revivals, testimony meetings, Christian concerts, youth rallies….all of these events were likely to feature the uprooting of any semblance of assurance a Christian happened to be carrying around. Questioning your salvation was a way of life. Announcing repeat customers as new converts was the predictable result.

Since the focus of my fundamentalist, revivalist, Southern Baptist upbringing was the all important sacrament of the altar call, we were particularly called upon to frequently examine whether we really meant it when we’d “come forward.” Had we sincerely, really, honestly, truly, “asked Jesus into our hearts?” Were we sure? Was Jesus really there? Did we ever doubt our salvation? Did we know, absolutely and unshakably, that we belonged to God?

Living in this kind of tortured environment never really shook my personal assurance, but it made me cynical about what I was seeing and hearing. Frankly, it annoyed me before and after I made my own profession of faith, and has increasingly offended and concerned me as a minister. It smells like a way to generate false conversions and brag about the numbers at your last meeting. I’ve since decided that believing any Southern Baptist reports on number of professions of faith at any revivalistic event or subsequent baptisms is an exercise for the gullible and the stupid. The number of people born again, and again, and again, and again is truly staggering.

This is contempt for the average, ordinary, struggling Christian and their most basic sturggles. Make no mistake about it. These are people who, besides their commendable zeal, are quite content to destroy the certainty of heaven, forgiveness and God’s constant love for His children.

So assurance is regularly fried up in the atmosphere of revivalism, but one doesn’t have to live in such a circus to find the assurance of the ordinary Christian under assault. Much of evangelical preaching today is focused on moralism of various kinds, constantly pointing the Christian to what he/she ought to be doing. Serious preaching on discipleship often directs the Christian to a variety of duties, ministry needs and pressing obligations for any true follower of Jesus. For sensitive consciences, it can seem that the Christian life is about being a “good” person, doing “good” things in a hurting world, imitating Jesus so others can see Jesus in you.

Many contemporary preachers are busy describing the Christian life as a life where the Christian finds his/her destiny and fulfills his/her dreams. Follow the principles for success and purpose, and experience God’s best for your life. But what if you are failing? Suffering? Constantly falling short? Such emphases can undermine assurance when the Christian is told the outcome of the Christian life is practical, real-world results.

(I find it extremely interesting that Joel Osteen has combined the success and prosperity message with a strong, almost unrelenting emphasis on the Christian’s constant awareness of God’s love and acceptance. Osteen has wisely perceived that assurance is being undermined in many churches with emotionalism and a Word-Faith, prosperity and health message. He has repaired this by talking about a God who is always on the side of everyone, all the time. What Osteen fails to do is clearly relate this message of assurance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.)

Among many churches with a serious emphasis on the Biblical Gospel, there is the danger of an over-emphasis on evidence that one is truly converted, or in some circles, truly elect. The New Testament’s proper and plain concern for evidence of the reality of the Holy Spirit can become a cause for much doubt that the evidence is ever adequate or convincing. Again, when the sensitive conscience is put on the witness stand, it rarely feels that the evidence is sufficient to clear the bar of judgment as a “true Christian.”

Strong Biblical preachers who press texts and applications upon the conscience often create an unceasing atmosphere of personal doubt about salvation. By holding the demands of the Law and discipleship up for unmistakable consideration, many Christians come away convinced they are not true believers, but quite possibly among those Jesus will finally reject. There is a pervading notion of false faith in many serious, Biblical churches; a notion that buys into the Bunyanesque notion of a door to hell at the entrance to heaven itself. (I have often heard reformed preachers wrestle with the implications of this for their own pastoring. Would that more reformed leaders would urge the preaching of assurance in Christ alone upon their hearers and not send them seeking assurance in Christian experience.)

Such preachers are well aware that this is a hazard. They know the scriptural texts that enjoin making calling and election sure. They know the texts that recommend self-examination. Some of these preachers are constant in preaching the Gospel to bring assurance. Others are less concerned with the promises of the Gospel, and are content to let an extended “law-work” overturn false assurance in the church.

As an example of my concern, I want to look at a sermon on assurance by Dr. John Piper. In a May 2, 1982 sermon on election and assurance, John Piper used an illustration of a couple whose diligent efforts to swim against the tide kept them from being swept away and drown. Using the illustration as an application, Piper says.

I’ve said before and will again: we do not judge a person’ s genuineness by how close he is to heaven but by how hard he is stroking. The evidence that God’s power has been given to you by faith is that you are now making every effort (as 2 Peter 1, verse 5 says) to advance in the qualities of Christ.

Earlier, Piper used an illustration about marriage to show how assurance of love brings effort in a marriage relationship.

We labor for virtue because God has already labored for us and is at work in us. Don’t ever reverse the order, lest you believe another gospel (which is no gospel). Never say, “I will work out my salvation in order that God might work in me.” But say with the apostle Paul, “I work out my salvation for it is God who works in me to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Never say, “I press on to make it my own in order that Christ might make me his own.” But say with Paul, “I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12). There is a world of difference in a marriage where the husband doubts the love of his wife and labors to earn it, and a marriage where the husband rests in the certainty of his wife’s love and takes pains joyfully not to live unworthily of it. Peter’s point is: God is for us with divine power. Of that we may be sure. Now, in the confidence of that power, take pains not to live unworthily of his love.

Yet, Piper makes it clear in the sermon that assurance is conditional.

It is possible to make a start in the Christian life but then to become indifferent and unfeeling and careless in using the means of grace, and to drift into destruction…If the knowledge of God’s glorious promises does not spur us on to strive against the tide, then we will be barren and fruitless and drift to our destruction.

Then Piper gives an extended explanation of the text “..make your calling and election sure.”

Verse 10 makes crystal clear what is at stake in such blindness and powerlessness and fruitlessness: “Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election.” The danger described in verses 8 and 9 (as an incentive to advance in the fruits of faith) is not the danger of slipping into the kingdom with no rewards. It is the danger of not being saved at all. When Peter says, “Be zealous to confirm your call and election,” he means that our lack of diligence in Christian graces may be a sign that we were never called and are not among the elect.However you have been taught on this matter of election, please give very close attention to this verse. The assumption is that the whole world lies under the righteous judgment of God because of sin. But because of his great mercy, God ordained that a people for his own be saved by grace. These are his elect, his chosen whom he has predestined to be conformed to the image of his son. And Paul explains in Romans 8:30 that those elect whom he predestined to Christ-likeness he also called, and whom he called, he also justified and whom he justified he also glorified. None of God’s sheep will ever be lost. They are eternally secure. But from our side the most important question of life is: am I among the elect who God predestines to be like Christ and then calls and justifies and glorifies forever? If we are, God wants us to know that we are. He wants us to have joyful assurance, for out of that assurance flows tremendous power for sacrificial service that gives him glory.

Therefore Peter says, “Confirm your election! Make sure of it!” How? By standing in your faith and pressing on to virtue, knowledge, self-control, patience, godliness, brotherly affection and love. John said (in 1 John 3:14), “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (cf. 2:3). The confirmation of your election is your progress in sanctification. God predestined all the elect to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Therefore, the reassuring evidence of our election is Christ-likeness.

It is undeniable- and anyone who reads Dr. Piper knows this presentation of assurance is not dated in the least- that the reality of personal assurance here comes from obedience. According to Dr. Piper, we are to make every effort toward obedience in every way, and these efforts will provide us with the “joyful assurance” that we are among the elect.

What does this message do to those who struggle with assurance? It seems to me that the effects will be varied. Some will genuinely be helped. Some will be motivated toward sacrificial service. But this type of preaching has an undeniably despairing effect upon sensitive consciences. Notice the words in the closing paragraphs, words not particularly different from the kind of “doubt creating” preaching I heard growing up.

So here’s the application: Are you making every effort toward moral excellence? Are you making every effort to increase your knowledge of God’s character and his will? Are you making every effort to strengthen your power of self-control? Are you making every effort to enlarge your capacity for patience? Are you making every effort to cultivate godliness to develop a heart for God? Are you making every effort to grow warm in your affection for your fellow believers? And are you making every effort to stir up love in your will for the person you dislike the most? If these things are in you and increasing, you will not be fruitless (v.8), you will never stumble (v. 10) , and you will enter the eternal kingdom of Christ (v. 11). But if these things are not your earnest concern then it is because you have shut your eyes to the beauty of God’s promises and have forgotten the humble exhilaration of being forgiven.Therefore, the word of God warns us against being lazy in your faith and drifting away from Jesus Christ our only hope. And the Word encourages us to fight the good fight of faith and take hold on eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12,19); to lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and run with perseverance the race before us (Heb. 12:1); to press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14); to advance and grow and go forward in virtue and knowledge and self-control and patience and godliness and brotherly affection and love (2 Peter 1:5-7), and in this way to reassure our hearts and make our confidence firm that we are indeed called to share in God’s glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:10,3).

I want to be very careful to say that I have no particular disagreement with the general unfolding of this text, but I believe honest, sensitive consciences will be driven to doubt and a loss of assurance by the emphasis that we look to the evidence of our lives rather than to Christ alone as the ultimate ground of assurance. All the efforts and kinds of obedience that flow from a passage like this will ultimately be an inadequate ground for assurance.

[Folks who love Dr. Piper….PLEASE don’t carpet bomb me. This is not an attack on him, his ministry, or Reformed theology. The discussion of assurance as it applies to sensitive consciences has been going on since the Puritans, was a major issue in the writings of Luther, and was the reason Spurgeon counseled care when reading John Bunyan, whose theology was much like Dr. Piper’s. It’s a valid and fair issue and not an attack on Calvinism.]

If I were to return to my teenage counselee, and ask the questions in the last two paragraphs- “Have you made EVERY effort toward obedience and Christlikeness?”- I would reaffirm her conclusion that she is, indeed, not a true Christian; a conclusion based upon her disappointing performance in the Christian life. We would be back at the baptistery in no time.

Recently, Lifeway listed on their website the Ten Most Pressing Issues Facing The Church. The Gospel didn’t make the top ten. It doesn’t surprise me. A variety of political and social issues- all demanding Christian activism- made the list. I am wondering how many Christians are sitting in churches, hearing preaching and teaching, and leaving wondering if they are Christians at all? I wonder how many Christians believe the center of the Gospel is their own efforts at being “fully surrendered” or obedient?

The growing centrality of the Gospel in many churches and among many reformation-minded Christians is the most encouraging sign that there may, indeed, be a new reformation afoot. But in order for a new reformation to take hold, we must come to grips with the hundreds, thousands, even millions of Christians who do not yet see all the demands, all the promises, all the law and all the callings of a disciple met fully and completely in the person of Jesus Christ. If assurance is not based on the mediation of Jesus BEFORE it is evaluated in terms of the “efforts” and “evidence” of our own lives, we will eventually find ourselves at the mercy of the enemy and our own consciences. Christ first, then our own, imperfect obedience. Then Christ again, all in all.

The habit of many serious preachers is to put the Gospel focus on the person and work of Jesus, but to do so in a relationship to the obedience and faith of the Christian that undermines assurance for many sincere, yet faltering, Christians. I don’t believe these preachers reject the kinds of assurance the reformers taught were available to every Christian. I simply believe the agendas of activism, evangelism and even intense discipleship can displace- simply through emphasis- the mighty fact of a finished work and an infinitely worthy mediator. When every Christian looks to Jesus for assurance, and when godliness, obedience and perseverance all arise from and finally rest in the faithfulness of Jesus, the Gospel will do its work of placing our assurance totally in the heart of the good shepherd and the arms of the waiting father, rather than in our stumbling, imperfect, failing selves.

Can pastors, teachers, well-intentioned Christian parents and youth workers move away from the use of fear and threats to undermine assurance, and simply commend Jesus to each person’s conscience as our all-sufficient assurance? That is my prayer for myself and my fellow servants of the Gospel.

Let me close with some thoughts by Rod Rosenbladt that bear directly on the issue of assurance and how it is handled among Christians and in the church. Here is wisdom.

Did the reformers, then, have any doctrine of sanctification? Of course they did. We are all familiar with the biblical announcements as to what is involved in sanctification: the Word, the Sacraments, prayer, fellowship, sharing the gospel, serving God and neighbor. And the Reformation tradition acknowledges that there are biblical texts that speak of sanctification as complete already. This is not a perfection that is empirical or observable (as Wesley and others would have insisted upon), but a definitive declaration that because we are “in Christ,” we are set apart and reckoned holy by his sacrifice (1 Cor. 1:30; Heb. 10, and so on). Anybody who is in Christ is sanctified, because Christ’s holiness is imputed to the Christian believer, just as Jesus says in John 17:19, “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” God sees the believer as holy. That means that Wesley should not have terrified Christian brethren with texts such as “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 [NIV] ). The Christian is holy, it is all imputed. What would the reformers have done with texts such as 1 Peter 1:16, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” ([NAS], cf. Lev. 11:44f; 19:2; 20:7)? They would say we are called to be holy. But, some may ask, why should we be called to holiness if we are already perfect in Christ? That question has been asked before, and Paul’s answer in Romans 6 is because we are saved unto good works, not unto licentiousness. Good works are done out of thankfulness of heart by the believer who has been saved, not by one who is trying to be saved by following the law…What should the Christian do if he is reading the law and says, “This is not yet true of me: I don’t love God with all my heart, and I certainly don’t love my neighbor as I love myself. In fact, just today I failed to help a poor man on the side of the road who was having car trouble. I must not yet be a Christian.” The answer of the Higher Life movement to the struggling Christian is, “Surrender more!” or, “What are you holding back from the Lord?” The Reformation answer is different: “You hurry back to the second use of the law and flee to Christ where sanctification is truly, completely, and perfectly located.” After this experience, the believer will feel a greater sense of freedom to obey (thus fulfilling the third use of the law), and this is the only way that one will ever feel free to obey. The most important thing to remember is that the death of Christ was in fact a death even for Christian failure. Christ’s death saves even Christians from sin. There is always room at the cross for unbelievers, it seems. But we ought also to be telling people that there is room at the cross for Christians, too.

NOTE: Those reading this essay and disagreeing with me might want to check out two other iMonk pieces: When I am Weak and Our Problem With Grace. Both cover my views on sin in the life of the Christian and the Grace that brings assurance in Jesus.

ALSO, CHECK OUT THIS ESSENTIAL READING: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Justification by Rod Rosenblatt.

Comments

  1. Well, us Methodists believe you can backslide and turn your back on God just as easily as you turned toward Him, but we also believe His amazing grace is broad and liberal, as Wesley put it.

    I think it’s a truism that people in general are likely to be wrong about things they’re certain about. There is psychological evidence that says the more we’re confronted with something that ought to make us change our minds, the more set we become on our original choice.

    So, it would not surprise me at all if there’s a Christian Uncertainty Principle, where those who are most certain in actuality have the most need to worry. I mean, what would Jesus had done if confronted with someone who was totally self-assured and confident that God had already placed them among the elect?

    If I get to be baptized more than once, I want to be baptized every week. Like communion, but better.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Fish says: “If I get to be baptized more than once, I want to be baptized every week. Like communion, but better.”

      That is GREAT!!!! Funny, yet profound!

    • Reminds me of something Steve Brown (a Presbyterian Calvinist) said to his buddy (a Wesleyan Armenian): “You believe you can lose your salvation. You just don’t believe you can lose YOURS!” I.e. his despite his Armenianism, his buddy trusts God for his assurance just as much as Steve does.

  2. textjunkie says:

    I’m no theologian, but I can empathize with your counselee–heaven knows I did the “rededication” dance many times in my formative years, and worried that on the one hand, I wasn’t perfect and still did all these wrong things so was I really saved, while on the other hand, I had never really gotten into trouble and didn’t have a miraculous testimony so was I really saved?

    Two things gave me something to hold on to and made me quit worrying. First, I ran into the old verse from Micah–I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Someone actually ASKED what it was that God wanted, and right there in black and white was the answer: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God. That gave me such an incredible sense of relief. None of this being perfect or sanctified or elect or working out your salvation, whatever that means. Act justly; love mercy; walk humbly before your God. It’s hard to explain, but I fall back on that one (and the two great commandments!) all the time.

    The other was a sermon or teaching that compared three different Christian archtypes: Paul, the iconic “by the grace of God I was SAVED!” conversion, really dramatic, turnaround, great testimony; Peter, the guy who lived with Jesus for three years but was forever doing the wrong thing and saying the wrong thing, but was an incredible witness for God anyway; and John, the one who never really drifted or experimented with other faiths, but lived constantly in the sense of God’s presence and love. I take great comfort in the stories of Peter. 🙂 I figure if he can screw up when Jesus is looking right at him, there has to be some slack for those of us who are working at more of a distance.

  3. Rick Ro. says:

    This is an awesome post. Thanks for re-posting it.

    The closing line is wonderful. (Rob Rosenbladt’s “There is always room at the cross for unbelievers, it seems. But we ought also to be telling people that there is room at the cross for Christians, too.”)

  4. Chaplain Mike, I’ve been trying to find an email address for you, but alas, none at your own blogs or here. Can’t say that I blame you.

    I have a quick question. Could you email me back, please? If my address isn’t registered you can find me on the contact page of the hcmm site. Thanks. Ted

    PS, Interesting topics, btw. Coincidentally, I’ve been listening to some Gordon-Conwell lectures about sanctification and obedience for a course I’m taking. That professor is also a great fan of Piper, and also doesn’t quite agree with him on this matter.

    • There’s a link to my email at the top of the main iMonk page, on the upper right corner of the first post. It says, “Write Chaplain Mike.” Drop me a note using that link.

  5. You’re going to start thinking I’m only posting to pick at typos (I swear I’m not). Links at the bottom appear broken. Thanks for the repost. 0=)

  6. I was at a women’s retreat last weekend where the topic was Joy (how to get it, keep it, and use it yaya). I disagreed with the leader’s point that complaining kills joy therefore just don’t do it. I said half the bible is complaining, obviously God listens to complaint(and recording complaint in the Bible is “inspired” to teach and edify). The important thing is going on to utter the NEVERTHELESS–most of Psalms is “Life sucks and I screwed up, NEVERTHELESS my hope and trust and salvation is in the LORD”. The look of relief (and joy) on the faces of the ladies on my small group was bright, one piped up THANK YOU, I’ve always felt so GUILTY for my complaining(and she was a person with plenty of NEVERTHELESS in her heart!!!).

    Relationship with God always seems to get the short end of the stick, we’re more taught how to step and fetch and fit in the community. So much is learned from “be still and know” (or, “shut up and listen”). This is a favorite quote of mine which has taught me a lot for awhile now–“Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.”
    –Gary Snyder(Practice of the Wild, I think)

    (ha, and sometimes laziness “is” an issue too…)

  7. Not one of the best essays written by Michael Spencer. A much better essay was the one he wrote several years ago on perseverance: http://www.internetmonk.com/articles/R/race.html (I believe he was much more biblical on this matter in that essay than on this one).

    Though I can sympathize with Michael and those people who have struggled with assurance for many years I must say that the greatest threat that the church faces right now is not “hard-believism” but “easy-believism.” From the seeker-friendly movements, to the health-wealth gospel, to the emergent church, and the typical nominal evangelicalism you find in many churches today the universal church today is being threatened because many people who profess to be Christians lack desire for holiness, the thirst for obedience to God, and a wanting to be Christlike in every way. Too many evangelical churches today are focused more on what God wants for you, how he can help you, and what you can gain out of him. Sadly, many false or nominal believers have bought into this lie.

    I too am concerned with assurance. I often struggle with doubts and temptations in my own Christian life too. I do firmly believe in justification by faith alone in Christ alone, I adamantly reject the New Perspective on Paul, I am greatly concerned with recent ecumenical agreements that try to find middle-ground between evangelicals and Catholics/Orthodox on the doctrine of justification. Therefore, some of you guys can breathe a sigh of relief because I am not one of those nutty neo-legalistic Reformed people or those who try insert works-righteousness into salvation. However, I do agree wholeheartedly with the likes of John Piper, John MacArthur, James Montgomery Boice, Thomas Schreiner and many others who say that assurance is tied to our perseverance in faith. I agree with them that genuine Christians bear fruit in varying degrees as a pattern of life. I also agree with them that MANY who call Jesus Christ “Lord, Lord” will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

    For those who think that assurance is something that comes automatically to them because they themselves Christian is treading dangerous ground. Assurance is a birth-right but it is a birth-right that must be demonstrated by the new birth and its marks. Too many people in churches today are lulled into thinking that they are going to heaven even when they have not been transformed by God’s Spirit from within. They diligently practice the Christian faith but have no inner righteousness that counts before God’s tribunal. They do outward things that look Christian but are still dominated by selfish ambition, worldliness, envy, greed, malicious pride, and narcissism in the inside. To give blanket assurance to any person just because they call themselves a Christian and attend church on a regular basis is a recipe for spiritual disaster.

    Some people may find my post upsetting. Some may even totally dislike me because of the way I approach this matter. The bottom line is: many years of formal theological education and being involved in the church has led me to conclude that many people who call themselves Christian don’t deserve that blessed assurance that only those who walk in the faith and bear fruit that pleases God and benefits the neighbor have a right to.

    • Mark, I hope nobody dislikes you for your approach here. What you’re saying is quite biblical, but a lot of it can be misunderstood. This faith/obedience thing is part of a great paradox, two sides of the same coin.

      On the one hand, it’s all about what Jesus has done: sola fide, grace alone through faith alone, Ephesians 2:8-9. Anything I try to do is filthy rags along side of that.

      On the other hand, it’s James 2:14-26, faith without works is dead. No cheap grace, as you and Bonhoeffer might say. And, as in Matthew 7:23 the Lord himself will say, “I never knew you,” if we proclaim him falsely.

      It’s all in the bible, it’s all true, and yet it’s all a paradox. We’re saved by Jesus. Nothing I can do will improve on that. The saving is a done deal. Anything I try to do, even obedience, if I think it will preserve my soul, can become a matter of pride, ego, workaholism, filthy rags, idolatry.

      And yet, we are also called to follow the Lord, which means obedience. The question is, to what extent does that “save” or “preserve” or “sanctify” us? None, as iMonk or Chaplain Mike would say. But I think they would both agree with James that our obedience (or good works) does demonstrate our faith. But it’s Jesus who did all the work.

      Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please.” Not to be taken in a libertine manner (and many have done that!) but I think it’s an example of James–that if we love God, the result of that love will be obedience and good works, that what pleases us to do will reflect God’s will. It’s something like Psalm 37:4, “Delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Not that he’s the candyman or the god of health/wealth; but that our desires, if we truly love God, will become conformed to his will. “Love God” and “do as you please” in that case would be of one accord.

      Obedience, good works and work itself are important; but they are effects, not causes of our salvation. In the wrong hands they can lead, as I said, to pride, workaholism and idolatry.

      Paradox. Where is the balance? As iMonk once said to me, when I questioned his take on the Law, “How much is enough? Who gets to make the call?”

      Keep talking. It’s good to bounce off of you.

      • cpilgrim says:

        There is none righteous, no, not one;
        There is none who understands;
        There is none who seeks after God.
        They have all turned aside;
        They have together become unprofitable

    • “many people who call themselves Christian don’t deserve that blessed assurance”

      Does God only give us things that we deserve? Do we have a “right” to anything that he gives us in his grace?

      • Mark, all I can say is, I’m glad you are not my pastor. I have one Judge who examines me. I don’t need another. Nor do I need to practice constant spiritual navel-gazing to “examine myself” and try to diagnose my own spiritual health. Given my capacity for self-deceit, that would not be prudent anyway.

        As Paul wrote, “I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.” (1Cor 4)

        There is only one safe way, and that is to look to Christ alone.

        • Chaplain Mike,

          May I suggest you pick up three books and read them? Here they are:

          “The Gospel According to Jesus” by John F. MacArthur

          “Holiness” by J. C. Ryle

          “Christ’s Call to Discipleship” by James Montgomery Boice

          If you like novels you can also pick up John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

          Cheers.

          • Mark, thanks but I think you need to know I’ve been a Christian for 35 years now, and a pastor for 30. I have pretty much been through all the various theological iterations of evangelicalism along the way. I have read and studied what you’ve recommended here, and some of these books have been companions for many years. I’m not saying I’ve heard it all, but I’ve heard and read and digested a lot of material along the way. I’ve had some of the best theological teachers and mentors along the way too.

            And the end result of it all is this: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

            If I point people to anything other than Him, I am not being faithful to my calling.

            Of course, we instruct people to live a Christian life. And when they go astray, we encourage them to get back on track. And no pastor worth his or her salt would give assurance to someone who is spitting in Christ’s face. But apart from that, there is simply no identifiable level of “fruit-bearing” that enables me or anyone else to say that one person is in and another is out.

            If Paul could call the Corinthians “saints” and work with them as a pastor to point them to Christ, what makes us think that we can’t work with the weakest, most ignorant, immoral, and divided church and point them to Christ?

          • I LOVE a Christianity that promises you salvation and forgiveness for sins and delivers you a reading list.

            ““If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you His copy of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’.” John 4

    • “The bottom line is: many years of formal theological education and being involved in the church has led me to conclude that many people who call themselves Christian don’t deserve that blessed assurance that only those who walk in the faith and bear fruit that pleases God and benefits the neighbor have a right to.”

      Most ridiculous comment ever made on this blog, or simply the most ridiculous comment EVER? Let him who hath understanding reckon the oafishness of this quote.

      It’s nice to hear that “many years of formal theological education” has developed in you the wisdom to separate sheep from goats, wheat from tares, good sons from bad ones – God must be really proud of you. I bet he looks down on you and says to the angels, “See? That’s what I’m talking about. Christians like him make being nailed to a cross TOTALLY worth it.” I bet he’ll even let you take over for Him during the Last Judgment!

      You win at Christianity. Congrats.

      And as for the kind of self-assurance that your study and churchgoing has produced – what of it? I’ll take King Solomon’s reflections over John Piper any day of the week:

      “I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

      What is twisted cannot be straightened;
      what is lacking cannot be counted.” Ecc. 1:16-18

      • Celeste says:

        I think it’s deceptive to rely on assurance as proof of salvation, most of the times I’ve heard Christians describe their assurance it’s in a feeling and feelings are fickle and fleeting. Most of the big shot Christians through the ages(at least the honest ones) have had a “dark night of the soul” (or lots), and gained much because of it. Even Jesus himself had his “why have you forsaken me?” and I’ll throw in his desert temptation for good measure.

        I’ve learned in my own life that those times where assurance is gone is when the fluff and vanity is stripped away. If I reply to the lack with “Jesus loves me, this I know”, the knowing grows deeper and wider. It’s not “be still and feel” it’s “be still and know”, and sometimes knowing is just deciding that you know it because God said so(CS Lewis would say that’s why we’re given imaginations). Flashy rainbows, warm fuzzies and singing angels are cool and all, but that’s not the point is it?

        Just like anything else in life, you dont’ grow or gain without challenge. There’s a lot of wisdom in “Pain is weakness leaving the body” and “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”.

      • Uhh, Patrick, try not to be the first one to fling spaghetti in the food fight.

        Entertaining remark you made: “Most ridiculous comment ever made on this blog, or simply the most ridiculous comment EVER? Let him who hath understanding reckon the oafishness of this quote.”

        Cute. But come on… the most ridiculous comment EVER??? Or even on this blog? A little biblical hyperbole, no doubt.

        I think Mark is pushing one side of the coin a little too hard, at the expense of the other side, but I still wanna hear him out. I think there may be a communication problem at work too, because after all, Mark has said a few kosher things like, “I do firmly believe in justification by faith alone in Christ alone…”

        But I am with you on the apparent judgmentalism in a statement like “…many people who call themselves Christian don’t deserve that blessed assurance…”

        I think Mark could have worded that differently. It’s God who decides who deserves what.

        • Like I said above, I firmly hold to the five solas of the Reformation, I reject the modern innovations going on in the biblical studies field where scholars are redefining what justification is, and i am really worried about a lot of ecumenical discussions going on these days that compromise on this foundational article. There, you guys can have your peace that I am not tampering with the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Oh yeah, I also believe that true salvation cannot be forfeited no matter what once had (this comes with my Calvinism).

          However, I believe that the biblical witness shows that salvation is involves transformation of the soul. A person doesn’t become justified but remains in the old nature. The person is a new creation with the old nature coming under the dominion of the new nature which the Spirit endows. The New Testament is replete with warnings, exhortations, and admonitions to walk in the faith and bear fruit that pleases God all the way to the end. The New Testament also warns us that there will be dire consequences for those who drop out OR who professes the faith yet are still dominated by the sinful nature. This is not me speaking, this is Scripture!

          I don’t believe I am pushing one side of the coin Ted. I believe I have the right balance. Calvin made the very important point long time ago that all true believers are united to Christ by faith. That union brings with it not only justification before God’s tribunal but also sanctification in this life that bears the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, you cannot have Christ as justifier if you will refuse to have him as your sanctifier. Yes, all true believers stand on Jesus Christ as the sole foundation for their salvation, justification, and adoption. Yet, true believers also follow after the Lord and Savior in mind, heart, and action the best they can in the Spirit.

          • So I’m trying to make out that you’re with James on this as well as with Paul. If so, I’m with you there. And as for justification/sanctification, can we call this the old argument about trying to have Jesus as savior without having him as Lord (cheap grace)?

            The problem with this discussion is that the spaghetti is flying. Not sure who flung the first spoonful. But in making your hair-splitting points you’re sounding a bit shrill (Patrick just said “flat”, but that metaphor was for content, not delivery).

            But I think Patrick is losing points on the charity thing.

          • Mark, I want to push back on this because I think it is so vital. Many of us are concerned with what we perceive to be the sad state of the church—this blog has lamented that fact and tried to be a hopeful voice of encouragement and reform for many years now. How to help believers and churches love and follow Christ more faithfully? I submit that the answer is not to focus on sanctification and continually emphasize the demands of discipleship, at least in the way that many do. In my view, those things have a place, but only if used sensitively within a ministry that is saturated with the Gospel and focused intently on Christ. Otherwise, preaching turns into condemnation, “good” parishioners become self-righteous and separatistic, the weak trodden on. The ministry takes on a “hard edge” that bears no resemblance to what we see in Scripture.

            The primary issues in our disagreement are not theological but pastoral. When I read the NT, I find it instructive that, no matter how sinful or flawed the congregation, Paul and the other apostles correspond with them on the basis of a common Christian faith. I simply do not find this continual questioning of their position in Christ. Indeed, the opposite! God’s gracious acceptance of them in the Gospel is everywhere celebrated, even (especially!) when the church is falling flat on its face. Warnings and admonitions also abound, but always in the context of a community of people who are considered to be in Christ.

            Pastorally, we must not only have sound theology but an understanding of how terms like “sanctification” look in a real church, in the lives of real people. If you had been the pastor in Corinth, would you say they met the standard of fruit-bearing that would give you assurance of their salvation? The Galatians? The seven churches in Revelation? The fact that we have a NT at all is testimony to how messed up the early churches were. How much must people be “dominated by the sinful nature” before they can’t be considered Christian anymore? And who gets to judge that?

            The Gospel is for Christians too. Sanctification comes through emphasizing that, not by piling demands on them.

        • Regardless of whether or not Mark is singing the right theological notes (and to my ears, he’s flat), I think that the SENTIMENT behind what you can’t help but notice as “apparent judgmentalism” is scandalous to persevering Christians and deserves reproof because it presents a dangerously distorted model of what kind of temperament a life of Christian faith is supposed to produce.

          EVERYTHING that the Pharisees taught was Kosher, and where did it get them?

          We don’t need to lapidate each other with Bible therapy; every Christian knows what time it is when it comes to the evil in his own heart, and how much or how little his worthless little kindling of quotable theology does to keep his heart warm in a cold world.

          When others hear us declare other Christians to be beyond the desert of God’s mercy, it’s safe for them to assume that our fire has gone out.

      • Your response doesn’t deserve a response. Come back when you’ve gotten yourself together and we can talk.

        • “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” Matthew 5:22

          But I guess a guy with your kind of Assurance doesn’t have to be scared of a little hellfire, huh?

          • I didn’t call you a fool, so there. I just question your attitude.

          • I’ve been reading this back and forth between you, Patrick, and you Mark, and it so reminds me of my “street”. My husband and I have lived in this atmosphere for 10 plus years…our differences in believing are far and wide. It feels like a competition. Mark, though you have many many things to say that are so correct, I wonder if you have ever had your Adam nature stare back at you in the mirror up close and personal? I do not hear mercy in your presentation, but a measurement.

  8. I have to say I agree with Imonk here. Instead of ‘easy believism’ why don’t we talk about lazy preachers, who instead of actually preaching the Gospel, take away people’s trust in Christ and replace it with spiritual introspection on steroids? There is plenty of you aren’t doing _____ enough,
    you are missing ______ in your walk with God. On TV and radio and the internet… constantly.

    Anybody can tear down, but who can build up?

    From the look of the American church, all this flogging of the sheep to more, higher, better piety and ‘personal holiness’ hasn’t amounted to much.

    • Steve Newell says:

      This sounds a lot like the Roman Church prior to the Reformation. It’s justification by faith and WORKS, not faith ALONE.

  9. I grew up in a Christian, church-going family (Southern Baptist to be specific). I was first baptised at age nine, and I think I genuinely meant it at the time (as much as a nine-year-old can). As a youth, I was plagued by the legitimacy of my salvation, like most of the other youth in that church. I can’t count the times I rededicated my life to Christ. And, looking back, that uncertainty had a lot to do with the messages that were coming from the pastor, youth minister, and speakers at youth conferences. By the time I went off to college, I had grown weary of struggling with uncertainty and was drifting toward apathy regarding the entire issue. By incremental steps over the next several years, I drifted all the way into a lifestyle of utter hedonism, serious drug and alcohol abuse, and a very dark, nihilistic world view. I count myself very fortunate that God arranged a meeting with me in my mid-twenties — a meeting that made me aware of my own spiritual and moral poverty and set my feet on the road back to Him.
    Now I’m not blaming those lost years on the church I grew up in or the pastor or the youth minister. I ended up in the pig pen because of my own choices. Still, I recognize that there was a very real lack when it came to encouragement, building up our faith, and instilling confidence regarding God’s saving grace. By and large, the church leaders seemed to be more concerned that we would not judge ourselves harshly enough — without considering the possibility that we might poke at the nerve of self-judgement until it went numb. And being in an oppressively judgemental environment just naturally creates a strong desire for an environment that is judgement-free. Unfortunately, the world offers a buffet of judgement-free environments, and there are no warnings above the doors about the dangers of pursuing moral freedom outside of God’s grace.
    I think we as the church could do a much better job when it comes to training people (especially young people) in the art of honestly examining their spiritual and moral state without practicing self-condemnation to the point of despair. And we need to better clarify that following Christ is a lifelong journey of both growth and struggle, victories and failures. We also need to make it clear that salvation belongs to God and God alone. Jesus paid for our salvation with His own flesh and blood. He owns it, He will bestow it according to His grace, and no-one and nothing can stay His hand. We as the church have been called to serve as vessels and vehicles of salvation through Christ, but we don’t own it, we can’t control or manufacture it, and we’ve got no business heaping additional conditions on it. We would also do well to foster church environments that are lot more open, honest, and transparent when it comes to sin. People might not feel so hopelessly inadequate as Christians if they knew that those among the super-spiritual elite shared the same struggles and failings that they do. Maybe we should just get rid of the illusion of a super-spiritual elite altogether, admit that we’re all in the same boat, and focus more on mutual survival and building each other up in Christ.

  10. When a minister preaches to undercut our assurance, he is no longer preaching Christ, but instead is preaching ourselves, by casting us back onto our own faculties and will power.

  11. JoanieD says:

    Another excellent post by Michael Spencer and one that I had not read when originally posted, so thanks, Pastor Mike, for reposting it. Michael always has concern for those “sensitive” types who think that they must be be Christian because they are not “holy” enough. I struggle myself, not with thinking I am not a Christian, but with thinking I am not doing enough to bring Jesus to the world.

    RonP, I love what you wrote here: “By and large, the church leaders seemed to be more concerned that we would not judge ourselves harshly enough — without considering the possibility that we might poke at the nerve of self-judgement until it went numb.” Great wording on the part I made bold! You do have a wonderful way with words.

    And Celeste, I agree with you; God isn’t going to get mad at us because we complain.

    The newest book by N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters just came out and should be winging its way from Amazon to me as we speak. I think he will have some interesting things to say about this matter too.

  12. I came to a simple conclusion the other day on the issue of sin and grace. The Bible records the history of God constantly conquering human failure through grace. I see the failures of biblical heroes (so-called) and see God simply overcoming those failures for the good of those who failed. I see it in Abraham and David and Peter.

    This idea spurs me personally to strive to fearlessly step out and simply live my life as best I can, fully trusting in the work of Christ to overcome whatever failures I have. Repairing and reforming my life remain important to me (I suppose you might relate that to sanctifiction), but that repair and reform are only possible because of the work and resurrection of Christ.

    My desire to be a better man for God and nieghbor is because of the assurance that where I fail (my sin) is covered by God’s grace.

    • I love the bible heros, all of them are messed up in some way, make mistakes or get whiney, but they all have one thing in common, they twist the throttle when God drops the gate!

  13. Awesome. Thanks for sharing that one. I wasn’t an iMonk reader when that was first posted. This describes my pre-Lutheran years perfectly.

  14. Lukas db says:

    The illustration Piper gives of a couple swimming against a tide reminds me of a metaphor of the spiritual life George MacDonald used. He compared the spiritual life to a mountain that everyone was walking up or down; and from a distance, he said, one may see two people at the same level greeting each other, and they may appear to be equal. However, it may be that one is traveling upwards and the other downwards; and this is the greatest possible difference that can exist between two people.
    I don’t find that assurance, when you have it, can really be described by doctrine. Too often they create overreactions or false conclusions. But this metaphor has been helpful to me – it illustrates that what is important is not how holy or virtuous you are now, but whether you are moving towards or away from God. I may not be perfect now; but if, by the grace of God, I continue to walk upwards, who knows what I will become?

  15. Thanks for this post. I grew up in Malaysia under the influence of American evangelism. I had understood “salvation by faith” as meaning that I had to be 100% certain of going to heaven, otherwise I was doubting God/Jesus. This perspective naturally leads to a focus on how strong one’s faith is, and for years my worry was that my faith was not strong enough.

    After years of this kind of stress, I eventually stopped worrying and simply resign my own salvation to God’s grace. That is, whether I’m saved or not is a matter for God, not for me, and I should simply concentrate on doing my best to live a godly life. (Notwithstanding sermons saying “doing your best” is not good enough.)

    Later on, when I reflected about what “faith” really means, it seemed to me that having faith in God doesn’t mean having no doubts whatsoever about my salvation. Rather, it simply means that my righteousness has nothing to do with how good I am in obeying God, but God’s grace. To put it perhaps simplistically, I cannot rule out the possibility that I’m not called by God to be part of his Kingdom, but if God has called me to be part of his Kingdom, it’s not because of anything I have done to deserve membership of his Kingdom.

    So it seems to me that Christians individually have no reason to be “100% sure” of their salvation. All I can be sure about is that if I do end up saved, it’s because of God’s grace, not my own doing. (My apologies if people think I’ve got this wrong.) Anyway, it seems to me that this perspective of what “salvation by faith” means is much less stressful. I shouldn’t worry about where I end up going and simply leave this to God’s grace.

    What is so great about being 100% sure of our own salvation anyway? It only tends to give rise to smugness on the one hand (I’m definitely saved, not sure about you), or stress (I doubt, therefore I can’t be saved).

  16. Interestingly, this week I read from 2Chronicles 12 the story of Rehoboam and how he and Judah abandoned the Lord after the victory God gave them. When God sent Shishak, King of Egypt, against them, they humbled themselves before God and God had mercy on them. However, because he did not set his heart to seek the Lord, Rehoboam did what was evil, the end of the chapter says.

    Whenever I read something negative like this last statement, I tend to get fearful because I know my own performance is not perfect, probably because I don’t always rightly divide the truth (old testament-old covenant/new testament-new covenant). Though I confess my sin(s) (1 John 1:9), I am often tempted to doubt my salvation. I started saying things to God like, “I don’t want to be like Rehoboam” and then I prayed “I want to seek you, Lord.” Then, I felt myself getting all worked up about my performance all day (and seeing into the future – performance, performance, performance) and I suddenly realized, I was doing it in my own strength. Good performance is good. But it is ever so slightly or greatly off from resting in what Christ has already done for me on the cross – His performance, which totally satisfied God. And because my good performance is off – it misses the mark – and it is sin, which, thank God, is covered by His blood, as well! After starting by grace for salvation, why I should I go back to the law for sanctification? No. I must rely on Christ for sanctification, as well.

    “He gives me the will and to do of His good pleasure.” Philippians 2:13 It is an outpouring of His own working in my life, not me trying to work something up. If it’s me and my strength and my performance, it is none of His, and it is not worthy of Him (it is flesh, not Spirit). It’s about perfecting my dependence on Him, not my performance. The performance is an outgrowth of the dependence. But, I venture to say, even the dependence is Him doing it through me, since “He is the author and perfecter of my faith.” Hebrews 12:2 I am just yielding to Him.

    I so appreciate this article (and the last line – as one commenter said), because of the re-assurance I have received – this article is the confirmation of what God revealed to me this week, that I can rest in and wait on Him. And, as the John Waller song goes, “I will serve you, while I’m waiting. I will worship, while I’m waiting. I’m running the race even while I wait” “doing the next thing” (Elisabeth Eliot) walking in faith in the things He has revealed in His written Word and in His spoken word to my heart (which are always in agreement). “The One Who calls me is faithful, and He will do it.” 1 Thess. 5:24. I am here “to the praise of the glory of HIS grace.” Eph. 1:6 and to “do good works, that He had already prepared for us to do.” Eph. 2:8-10 I don’t have to believe the devil’s lies about who I am. I am in Christ and He is in me. It’s not about my feeling saved. It’s about knowing that I know that I know. If I need more truth to stand firm, I trust Him to give me what I need. He knows what I need. The Battle is the Lord’s!!

    Thanks for blessing my heart today.

  17. I forgot to mention this to Chaplain Mike (and some of you can take my advice too). I wholeheartedly suggest you read John Piper’s recent book “Finally Alive.” It is a short but indepth biblical study at regeneration and the implications of regeneration. After reading the book you won’t look at conversion the same way again.

  18. Even the Corinthians had to be warned in several places in Paul’s two letters to them. The reason why Paul had to warn them to straighten up is because he knew that some (if not, many) of them were not going to make it to heaven unless they repented of their sinful ways.

    • That’s a big assumption on your part, not a clear part of the text.

      • Chaplain Mike,

        Respectfully, it is there in the biblical text, These passages should suffice: 1 Cor 3:17; 5:11; 6:9-10; 10;12; 15:2; 2 Cor 13:5-6.

        • Mark, this is the last word I will allow between us on this post. To everything there is a season, and it is the time to stop arguing and talking past each other.

          I have already agreed that pastors are to instruct and warn believers about living Christian lives. I too could pile up verses from Corinthians that show my point as well—these admonitions are always given with pastoral sensitivity, on the basis of a common Christian faith, assuming that the ones addressed are in Christ, expressing confidence in God’s work on their behalf, mixed with praise for progress made however minimal, never losing sight of or doubting the power of the Gospel.

          I leave you this prayer, for you, for me, and for all “Corinthians” and sinner-saints out there who struggle with sin and walk ever imperfectly in the ways of Christ:

          “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1Cor 1.4-9)

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Chapter-and-Verse Proof Texts. Of course. Christ as Party Line, Comrade. Doubleplusgood doubleplusduckspeak.

          Been there, done that, still got the scars to show for it. Only reason I’m not marching behind Richard Dawkins after being on the receiving end of The Party Line is who else can I go to for the words of Eternal Life?

  19. This article has again provoked me to ask whether repentence is a required attribute of the Christian life. While I am saved by faith through grace and not by works, I still am left with the question, “Ok, I’ve trusted Jesus. Now what?”

    I am not one to believe that salvation can be lost (a whole other topic). If works cannot save me, how can they condemn me? I am one to believe that to not repent of the sinful habits in my life is not unlike a smack to the face of God, a mocking laugh in the face of a resurrected Christ.

    God is good to me and in return I desire to be good to Him by doing what He would have me do. I think of 1 Peter 1:14-16 and Romans 14:17.

  20. Chaplain Mike,

    Thanks for holding your ground on “the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience” (Rom. 2:4). One of the ironies in discussions like this is that someone, like Jonah, inevitably gets angry at God’s grace, and for the same reason: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Jon. 4:2), much more than I am. Which is just the point, because each one is accountable to God, not me. So to answer God’s question to Jonah, “No, I don’t have a right to be angry.”

    I say this as someone who’s struggled with this very issue for the past year. But that doesn’t mean I hold a “cheap grace” or “easy believism” position at all. (You can read my blog if you need evidence.) Woe to any of us if we’re like the servant who his hid talent (Matt. 25:24-30), because then the master became angry, and that’s a different matter entirely. But even in that parable, the “riches” are manifest as well, because a talent was a substantial amount of money given by the master to each servant to put to use for him. Just given.

  21. I have been really surprised by this post. I had no idea so many people doubted their salvation. Jesus entered my life 40 years ago. I didn’t “get saved” as such, no one told me I could just pray to Him for forgiveness and salvation (I went to a Free Evangelical church and heard a wonderful sermon). But something happened to me in the middle of the night, alone in my bed, that changed me for ever. Some sort of acceptance on my part.

    I then spent 20 years trying to serve Jesus with all my heart as a missionary in (and out) of a group that became a cult. When I finally left for good, my faith was shattered. The negative effects on my large family are felt to this day. I spent nearly 20 years under tremendous condemnation. But I never doubted my salvation. My concern was that I might have to live eternity with regret, that at the final judgment I wouldn’t be able to look Jesus in the eye. I didn’t expect a crown but I didn’t want to feel eternal shame either.

    But the last couple of years my life has been turned on its head. I have felt the Holy Spirit very close and real, as I hadn’t for years. I am presently reading the Lent collection “Bread and Wine.” A section taken from Scot Henry Drummond is called “Turning.” It talks about how Peter denied Jesus three times in the courtyard and then Jesus TURNED AND LOOKED A T HIM. That’s all He did. Peter did nothing but it changed him for ever, he repented of his sin and became a great leader of the early church.

    That’s what I feel right now, that Jesus turned and looked me in the eye. He didn’t shout at me, accuse me – He just tenderly looked me in the eye, as if to say “Poor Peter, didn’t I wash away all your sins on the cross?” I don’t know why I had to wait all those years in the wilderness. I certainly don’t deserve this change on account of my good works. But now things are different.

    I continually remember the thief on the cross next to Jesus. All he did was believe and Jesus guaranteed him a place in paradise. To those of you who doubt your salvation, please don’t. At this time of Lent, just remember the sacrifice He made for you and me – ONCE AND FOR EVER.

  22. I want to back up a bit and address Piper’s comment about the potential danger of not being saved at all. When we talk about being saved, we need a bigger picture – – we are not only being saved FROM something, but we are also saved TO something.
    A poor analogy: if I am on an a ship that is sinking in a storm, a lifeboat could pluck me from the water and I would say to myself, “I’m saved”. But it is also true that I am “salvation” is fully realized when I finally make it TO dry land. The purpose of being “saved” is not solely to prove that I can escape a sinking ship; the larger purpose is to go on and thrive and live a full life.

    Hebrews 3 addresses this using the analogy of the Isrealites in the wilderness.
    If you had asked an Isrealite just after they had left FROM Egypt and passed through the Red Sea, “are you saved?”, you would get an emphatic yes, “He has become my salvation” (Exodus 15:2).
    However, most of that generation never made it TO the promised land. But it would be incorrect to say that person was “never really saved” from Egypt, and it would be foolish for that person to go back to Egypt and try to pass through the Red Sea again (like a re-baptism) in an attempt to be assured of their salvation. Similarly, Hebrews 3:14 and Hebrews 4:14 bookend this thought by saying that we should hold fast to our assurance and confession.

  23. Pastor Mike: a big THANK YOU for re-posting I=Monk’s words and a second THANK YOU for your post of March 6 @ 10:52; that’s getting copied and put in a folder I’m collecting on Discipleship. Very Solid on your part: Pastorally apply the gospel to believers, repeat as needed. Beautiful.

    Greg R

  24. My take on this: It’s all about whom you’re putting your trust in. If you’re putting your trust in yourself–aka, did I say the right words, did I pray the right prayer–then you’ll never find sure footing. But if you’re trusting in Jesus’ blood alone–telling Him, I know I’m a depraved sinner who deserves hell, but I believe that You died for me, and I’m trusting in You completely to wash away my sins–then you faith ahs found a resting place, as the old hymn goes.

    Also, people are coming down hard on Mark, but Jesus Himself warned us in the “Lord, Lord,” verse that not everybody who claims to be a Christian actually is. I’ve witnessed this for myself countless times in the past 15 years of my being a Christian. Not that I’m God; I can’t ultimately judge them. But 1 John tells us over and over, somebody who’s habitually practicing sin and doesn’t love isn’t in Christ.

    Also, somebody who serves an an usher Sunday morning and acts all pious and serves on church leadership committees, but then comes home and swears and yells and throws things at his family probably isn’t a Christian (thanks, dad, for my first exposure to Christianity 🙂

    • Thank you Jen for clarifying this. I know that I stand only on the sure foundation of salvation which is Jesus Christ. I don’t bring anything onto the table for my salvation.

      However, Scripture is clear that those who are genuinely saved will manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Those who profess Christ yet show no evidence that the work of the Spirit is a reality in their lives are merely deceiving themselves to their own eternal peril.

      I have grown up in church and for the past several years have been studying theology at a post-grad level at an accredited school. Having looked at all the biblical and theological evidence I could not help but say to myself that Scripture is deadly serious when it says that a lack of fruit in one’s life and a refusal to persevere in the faith is a clear sign of not being born of the Spirit.

    • Jen, what level of inconsistency makes it clear that a person isn’t a Christian? And who gets to judge that?

      • Of course, God judges that, not me. And not any person. But I John makes it clear that if a person who claims to be a Christian is habitually practicing sin and doesn’t love the brethren, that person really needs to take a good, hard look at himself (or herself).

        Of course, “habitually” or “practices” is not a black and white word, just to make things more gray 🙂

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I am sure Christ is glad Mark is there to stand at His side at the Judgment Seat and tell Him just who the Goats really are.

      Just like a Thought Police informant: “ME SHEEP! HIM GOAT! HIM GOAT! HIM GOAT! HIM GOAT!…”

      • When I read your posts in response to mine, I don’t know whether to laugh it off or feel pity for you. Why do you seriously dislike the things I post? Have you ever defended your position against mine biblically? If you check my posts above I always try to be faithful to the Bible because I know that my own sinful opinions don’t hold water before the Holy and True God. I am sorry to hear about all the things you have gone through that has shaped your theology, but please know that God loves you and desires for you to trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and justification of your soul. I am not being snarky here but I am telling you that the only peace you can is in Jesus Christ and what he has done for you on the Cross in Calvary.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Why do you seriously dislike the things I post?

          Because I’ve had my head messed up — BAD — by Christian attitudes like yours.

          Have you ever defended your position against mine biblically?

          And have it turn into a Proof-text game where He Who Quotes the Most Bible Verses Wins? Been there, done that, NEVER won a Bible-quoting contest in my life.

          It’s like The Silver Chair when the Lady in the Green Kirtle is a champion debater from UC Berkely. (Actually happened.) No matter who’s right, she knows the semantics to debate and argue you into defeat. No matter who’s right and wrong, what matters is “I WIN”.

          I am sorry to hear about all the things you have gone through that has shaped your theology, but please know that God loves you and desires for you to trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and justification of your soul.

          I did. Until Christians like you Uprooted my Assurance again and again and again so you could turn me into a Clone of Yourself. It almost killed me. After half a dozen times, you wonder if it was all BS.

  25. Another excellen iMonk [re]Post, and a nice discussion thanks Chaplain Mike. I think I might have mentioned before on iMonk my love of the writings of Adrian Plass. I belive he may not be so popular in the US, but his humourous novels are well known in the UK and here in Australia. In one of his books, he talks about one guest preacher, of the fire and brimstone type, who place a wooden chair in front of the congregation. He asked them to imagine Jesus was sitting in that chair, and berated the congregation about how bad and worthless and sinful they would feel if Jesus was there. This was contrasted with a humble monk preacher (if I recall correctly) who preached a few weeks later, who’s main message was “Jesus is nice and he likes you”.

    I’m no theologin, but when I read the Bible, I’m pretty sure I see a Jesus who is nice and who likes me. If my God and judge is like that, then I’m pretty happy.

    Jesus seems to reserve his main critiques for those who think they already know scripture backwards, and who use it to puff themselves up, and who use it to put others down. Those who diligently study scripture, but who can’t perceive it’s author when he is standing in front of them (at least in part because by partying with prostitutes and tax collectors Jesus was apparently not exhibiting the “fruit” these Bible scholars were looking for).

    I’m very much over fellow believers who seek to critque and establish measures against which they judge the performance of their brothers and sisters.

    I like The Message version of Matt 11:28-30
    (MSG) Matthew 11:28
    “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

    Jesus is my judge, saviour and my Sabbath rest. No one else’s judgement of my spirituality matters, though I’m always open to suggestions for improvement and growth from my brothers and sisters.

    Peace.

  26. Who quakes when the teacher yells at the class to behave? The ones who were listening already.

    The problem with the “you’ve just got to pull your socks up” approach to pastoring which Mark seems to be promoting is that it (like so many other things in evangelicalism) has a blanket “I lob my grenade and God takes care of the consequences” attitude with regards to the effects of our actions. “I do God’s will, and he takes care of the rest”. Oh-so spiritual, and predicated on a total assurance of our infallibility as concerns knowing God’s will.

    Do we really care about getting the message through to the people who really need to hear it? Or are we content to let rip from the pulpit, preferably with both barrels for the really hard hearted. At least that way OUR consciences are clear.

    And too bad for those wimpy doubters. In any case it can’t do them any HARM can it to hear the truth again? After all, the truth will set them free.

    I can understand people reacting violently to this kind of message. I grew up in a church with all of this stuff mixed together, and I would qualify it with just one word: toxic.

    In the comments further up, someone says that God should be their only judge, and no other man. I have had to learn that the “no other man” includes myself. Who am I to decide if I am “in” or “out”, based on my day’s performance?

    I think the dangers of falling into a selfish “taking care of my own sanctification” introspection are enormous here. I loved Adrian Plass’s Sacred Diaries for this – he was so preoccupied with his own sins and shortcomings, that he didn’t even see what God was doing in and through him.

    • I think “selfish” is an interesting and accurate word here! I know that my salvation doesn’t depend on my feelings of guilt day in and day out. Jesus paid the price for my sins *once and for all.* My conscience might be telling me of areas I need to confess or change, but my place in heaven is secure because of Jesus and Him alone!! Pretty awesome. 🙂 But also, humbling, because it requires me acknowledging that I can’t do a single thing on my own to “earn” my way there. It’s all Him.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The problem with the “you’ve just got to pull your socks up” approach to pastoring which Mark seems to be promoting is that it (like so many other things in evangelicalism) has a blanket “I lob my grenade and God takes care of the consequences” attitude with regards to the effects of our actions. “I do God’s will, and he takes care of the rest”. Oh-so spiritual, and predicated on a total assurance of our infallibility as concerns knowing God’s will.

      As well as providing a WONDERFUL opportunity for Spiritual One-Upmanship.

  27. Jonathan Hunnicutt says:

    While I think that Mark is being a bit spiritual prideful, I think there is a good point roaming around there somewhere:

    What about Christians who put more trust in “praying the prayer” than in Christ? I grew up southern-baptisty, and I heard a lot of conversations that went a little like this: “I don’t know if I’m really a Christian” “Did you pray the prayer? Maybe we should do it again just in case.”

    Slacktivist calls this Christian magic. [Thanks HUG for introducing me to slacktivist!] And it is a very magical, works oriented sort of thinking. Instead of the late medieval: Did you acculumate enough merit? It has become: did you pray the prayer with the right attitude? In other words did you do this specific work in this specific way. OK good, then you can know you are saved, because you DID something. This is so far from what the Bible teaches that it’s pretty disgusting.

    Also, Isn’t this what Imonk is going after in his post? Of course this kind of magical thinking creates all kinds of problem, like lack of assurance. It’s pretty easy to doubt a silly Christian magic spell.

    And this is what I think Mark is trying to get it. The flipside of the silly Christian magic spell mentality to salvation is that it can create assurance where there shouldn’t be any. “I’m good to go because I prayed that prayer at camp a few years ago.”

    The real problem is the “praying the prayer” mentality. It can’t give real assurance, and it creates all kinds of false assurance.

    • Good point. Many of our conversion models don’t help us.

    • I am not being spiritually prideful. Didn’t I say above I am a sinner who has doubts and temptations time to time just like everyone else? That I stand on Christ alone by faith alone for my salvation here and in the future? Why would you put that label on me without justification? It is true that I grew up in the church and educated at an accredited theology school. Does that make me spiritually prideful?

      My point is that though all believers are justified by faith alone in Christ alone we still need to obey God, manifest the fruits of the Spirit, and persevere in the faith to the end. How is emphasizing that biblical truth spiritually prideful? I never said I was perfect, either morally or theologically. I am just pointing a profound biblical truth that true believers will persevere in obedience, faith, and the truth.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Instead of the late medieval: Did you acculumate enough merit? It has become: did you pray the prayer with the right attitude?

      And the Exact Words. (What in D&D they call “verbal spell component”.) Don’t forget that. I got nailed at least once on You Didn’t Say the Exact Words. Guess that’s enough to cause spell failure or backfire.

      The real problem is the “praying the prayer” mentality. It can’t give real assurance, and it creates all kinds of false assurance.

      Over at Slacktivist, they call this “Say-the-Magic-Words Salvation”.

      In my college days, I became a notch on half a dozen Bibles through the “tear down his faith, make him doubt, then get him to Say the Magic Words” school of Witnessing (TM). I can attest to its drawbacks. After a few go-rounds you wonder if it’s all BS from day one.

      Very germane to this thread, considering the whole idea behind this sales tactic is to Uproot the Assurance of the mark.

  28. You can expect a lot more of this with the increased popularity of people like Paul Washer (whose sermons convinced his missionary wife that she wasn’t a Christian after all).

    • Paul Washer may not be a perfect preacher (and I certainly don’t agree with everything he says) but he is more closer to the truth about assurance than a lot of people who post here who seem to have no clue what the Bible actually says on this matter.

  29. Excellent point, Eaton. Problem is, too many so-called pastors today are putting on their makeup to speak over the video venue to practice in-depth pastoral care, and the folks in the congregation are so busy manning the programmed ministries of the church to experience the kind of community that would enable us to walk with one another and stick with it for the long haul.

  30. Thank you Chaplain Mike for the reposting. Isn’t grace hard for us to accept?

  31. Intresting post………….

    I teach Baptism classes and assurance is a thing that prevents many from being Baptised. I point them to the Assurance part in J.C Ryles book ‘Holiness’.

    Oh some readers may be interested in this:

    http://narrowseventhirteen.blogspot.com/2010/03/shepherds-conference-2010-al-mohler.html

    Blessings.

  32. The Holy Spirit is awesome. Last night I lay in bed spiritually squashed as I thought over the 3 times in the last week I verbally attacked people at work I like and respect. I begged God to sanctify me or get rid of me. This, it seems, was the answer. Thank you.

  33. Hey everybody, it’s been fun, but I think we’ve covered what we need to with this post. Comments are closed.